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Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch Series 3: Which budget Apple Watch wins?

Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 3 might have caught your eye due to their relatively low prices, especially when compared to the more costly Apple Watch Series 6. Both the SE and Series 3 deliver the core smartwatch experiences you expect from Apple, including accurate fitness tracking and smartphone notifications delivered to your wrist. However, the SE is a few generations newer than the Series 3 and has gained a few new tricks. Here’s our detailed comparison between Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 3, so you can find which is best for you.

Are you looking for Apple Watch alternatives? Here’s our guide of the best smartwatches from both Apple and other manufacturers.


Apple Watch SE Apple Watch Series 3
Display size 40mm / 44mm 38mm /42mm
324 x 394 pixels (40mm) / 368 x 448 (44mm)
272 x 340 pixels (38mm) / 312 x 390 (42mm)
Touchscreen Retina LTPO OLED display (1000 nits) OLED Retina display (1000 nits)
Wireless interface Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, LTE and UMTS (cellular model) Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, LTE and UMTS (cellular model)
Depth 10.4mm 11.4mm
Accelerometer Yes Yes
Gyroscope Yes Yes
Altimeter Yes Yes
Compass Yes No
Ambient light sensor Yes Yes
Optical heart rate Yes Yes
GPS Yes Yes
Water-resistant Yes Yes
Battery life 18 hours 18 hours
Price From $280 From $200
Review  4.5 out of 5 4 out of 5

Design and display

The Apple Watch Series 4 saw a significant redesign, so the SE sports a more modern Retina display, while the Series 3 is left with the slightly older, smaller, previous generation’s Retina display. The Apple Watch SE is offered in two sizes with either a 44mm or 40mm case, while the Series 3 presents 42mm and 38mm options. The newer Retina display is 30% larger and gives the device more of an edge-to-edge appearance. Both the SE and Series 3 sport 1000-nit bright displays, helping legibility in direct sunlight.

As for the cases themselves, the Apple Watch SE has lost a hair of thickness, going from the Watch Series 3’s 11.4mm down to 10.4mm. Both the SE and Series 3 are crafted from 100% recycled aluminum and are available in silver and Space Gray — only the Series SE sports the gold option, which we found to be subtler than what the renders on Apple’s website may hint. Additionally, neither of these Apple Watch models offer the more expensive stainless steel or titanium variants. If you opt for cellular service on the SE, you will also be greeted by a red circle on the outside of the Digital Crown.

When it comes to the design of the Apple Watch SE and Series 3, both allow you to jump into your pool or the ocean for a swim — these two smartwatches can be taken down to depths of up to 50m. Neither watch offers an always-on-screen, so you’ll only be able to view content when you lift your wrist. We believe the choice here is apparent between the two models, with the SE offering a larger Retina display in a smaller package and additional aluminum color options.

Winner: Apple Watch SE

Fitness and health-tracking

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Keeping an eye on your health is an excellent reason to grab a smartwatch. Let’s start by noting the features that the Apple Watch SE and Series 3 share. Using either Apple Watch, you can track everyday statistics, including steps taken and distance walked. Both devices also contain optical heart sensors, allowing them to detect your heart rate. If your heart rate is either high, low, or showcases an irregular rhythm, the SE and Series 3 can notify you.

Additionally, if you like to hike, the SE includes an always-on altimeter for constant data logging, while the Series 3 consists of an altimeter that can be called up when desired. Features that you will only find on the SE include the ability to take an ECG. Lastly, the SE’s included optical heart sensor is a newer, second-generation design with greater accuracy and speed.

With the launch of WatchOS 7, both Apple Watch SE and Series 3 gained the ability to track sleep. Simply set up a sleep schedule with Wind Down and then hit the sheets. The sleep data provided by Apple Watch isn’t extremely useful, but it enables you to gain a bit of insight into your sleep patterns. We found that the sleep function had a relatively small impact on battery and shouldn’t cause major concern.

When it comes to fitness assistance, both the SE and Series 3 offer Apple’s Fitness app for keeping an eye on your daily goals. Apple Watch SE and Series 3 also support Apple Fitness+, and you can jump onboard with Studio lessons as long as the devices are paired to an iPhone 6s or later or an iPhone SE. While both devices are close when it comes to fitness, Apple Watch SE takes the cake when it comes to health tracking, thanks to its ability to take an ECG and keep a closer eye on hearth health.

Winner: Apple Watch SE

Battery and charging

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Both Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 3 offer up to 18 hours of battery life, thanks to their built-in, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. We haven’t seen much of an increase in Apple Watch battery life, and the 18-hour official rating has become standard. Both the SE and Series 3 include a 1m magnetic charging cable in the box, but you’ll need to source your own USB Type-A wall plug.

Winner: Tie

Special features

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Beyond the health features included with each Apple Watch, a few other special features are on board to improve the overall experience. For starters, both the Apple Watch SE and Series 6 include emergency SOS, allowing you to call for help in emergencies quickly. However, the SE features an updated emergency SOS option, which now supports international calling. Additionally, the SE can detect if you’ve taken a hard fall and offer assistance or alert you when you’re in an environment where the loud noise level could damage your hearing.

Another Series 3 exclusive the SE loses out on is a built-in compass, great for orienting maps and positioning yourself while on a trail hike. If you’re without your iPhone, the SE is also available in a cellular LTE variant at an extra cost. Both models support Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n 2.4Ghz and Bluetooth — the SE with Bluetooth 5.0 and the Series 3 with Bluetooth 4.2. Internally, you’ll also find an S5 processor in the SE and an S3 processor in the Series 3. The result is a two times faster chip in the SE than what is found in the earlier Series 3.

Apple Watch Series 3 has introduced a hand-washing mode that can detect when you are washing your hands. Start scrubbing your fingers, and a soap countdown appears on your watch with a haptic tap alerting you to when you are finished. The addition is welcomed in a world where health is a top priority.

Overall, the Apple Watch Series SE packs in quite a few more special features than the Series 3, and the S3 processor gives it a powerful speed boost.

Winner: Apple Watch SE

Price and availability

Apple Watch SE and Watch Series 3 are both available globally. The SE starts at $280 for a 40mm variant or $310 for 44mm. If you wish to add on LTE, the inclusion will cost you another $50 on top of the base price. Of course, you will also need to pay a monthly fee to your cellular carrier of choice, which can differ. As for Series 3, you can pick up a 38mm model for $200 or spend $230 for the larger 42mm version.

Adding Apple Care+ to either the SE or Series 3 will cost you another $50 but provides additional tech support and accidental damage protection. While the Apple Watch SE is excellent, the Series 3 does present an attractive price while nailing the basics.

Overall winner: Apple Watch SE

The Apple Watch SE is the newer model, so it’s probably no surprise it won this battle. Selecting the Apple Watch SE over the Series 3 will cost you another $80, but in exchange, you’re getting a beautiful new Retina display, additional heart monitoring features, and a collection of special features. However, if that extra $80 is a bit of a stretch for your budget, there’s no shame in buying the Series 3, as it’s a beautiful and capable device. But, if you can afford the extra, the Apple Watch SE is the budget Apple Watch to buy.

Looking for more? Check out the best Black Friday Apple Watch deals we found so that you can save money by leveraging Black Friday sales.

Editors' Recommendations

Michael Archambault
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Michael Archambault is a technology writer and digital marketer located in Long Island, New York. For the past decade…
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